The value of university rankings

пятница, марта 30, 2012 7:01

There’s been lots of excitement lately about the recent Times Higher Education ranking of global universities, in which TU Delft ranks #51 in the world in terms of reputation, #104 in the world overall, and #22 among engineering and technology universities. I was definitely excited to read these numbers – there’s something tantalizingly seductive about being told where you stand, regardless of what is measured. But what exactly is measured?

The Times Higher Education ranking examines the reputation of universities, measured by sending surveys to ‘experienced, senior academics’ around the world and asking ‘action-based’ questions, such as ‘which university would you send your most talented graduates to for the best postgraduate supervision?’ Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects populate the top of each list: Harvard, Oxford, MIT. You get the idea. The problem with these sorts of rankings is that people - even people who are ‘experienced, senior academics’ – aren’t always very clever. People like things that other people like, and want things that are hard to get. Admission to the three universities I listed above fit these ideas perfectly. Who wouldn’t name Harvard early on when asked to name one of the world’s top universities? Sure, I’ve never been to Harvard, I never cited any papers from Harvard while I was a student, and I can’t really tell you why Harvard is great, except that I know that it is. Everyone knows that, right?

These rankings are even less helpful when students want to know where to learn, rather than get an impressive name on their CVs. Not all TU Delft faculties are equally strong, and despite its great rankings, the TU isn’t a good place to learn medicine. But I’d be hesitant to let an engineer from Harvard build my bridge – wait, no I wouldn’t, they’re from Harvard! (Never mind that Harvard doesn’t have an engineering faculty… it’s Harvard!) Not only do these rankings omit a faculty’s relative strengths – which is much more important than overall university strength – they also miss many other aspects. Leiden University is ranked #79 overall, many spots higher than TU Delft, and has better scores than TU Delft regarding citations from its papers. But TU Delft has a much higher score on international outlook and links to industry. Should a student choose Leiden because of its rank? Of course not.

What’s more, these rankings say absolutely nothing about value. Almost all ‘top’ universities are in the US and UK, where university is expensive. Harvard’s annual undergraduate tuition is $40,000, and graduate programs cost even more. The question is, then: how much is a fancy name worth? How many students are happy 20 years later? How many get good jobs? In the US, 14 law schools are currently being sued for implying that ‘90 to 92 percent’ of graduates become lawyers, when really this stat is for those who are simply employed, even if only at McDonalds. Meanwhile, students studying for seven years to become lawyers at Harvard will pay up to $315,000 for their education. I’d be mad too if I wound up working at McDonalds.
I know I attended a great university, because it offered a unique program with passionate students, because I had professors who do amazing research, and because my colleagues go out into the world and start cool businesses and write remarkable PhD theses. I don’t need a magazine or number to tell me TU Delft is great. I already knew that.

Devin Malone, a recent TU Delft MSc graduate
in industrial ecology, is from Anchorage, Alaska.

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